Photography can capture the details of clothes as they are in real life but what’s wrong with a little fantasy? Nothing is better at adding romance to the cut of a coat or swoosh of a dress than illustration. We meet three smart artists.
Fashion illustration is a longstanding art; a time-honoured vehicle for brands to market their products, which brings to mind mid-century covers for glossy magazines or the lux tableaux by Jordi Labanda. But today, there is nothing passé about this medium.From Chanel to Dior, brands have shown that there is much to be gained from putting pen to paper. “If you’re an illustrator with a particular style, you offer a unique selling point in a crowded marketplace,” says William Ling, who runs the Fashion Illustration Gallery in central London.
We meet three creatives who have graced advertising billboards, perfume packaging and look-books; and who see – and draw – through a very personal lens.
Japanese illustrator Hiroshi Watatani is a master of his craft: illustrating traditional men’s sartorial looks, creating a fashion-inspired world with no more than a brush and watercolour paints. With his ultra-realistic aesthetic, he has won clients in his country’s buoyant publishing industry as well as esteemed brands such as Osaka’s Azabu Tailor and British shoemaker Foster & Son.
Tokyo-born Watatani grew up during the Ivy League fashion boom in Japan during the 1960s. He spent his childhood relentlessly drawing, replicating illustrations in Japan’s iconic Men’s Club magazine. Despite being slightly colourblind, he completed his studies at Setsu Mode Seminar design school and his work debuted in the fêted Popeye magazine.
American illustrators had the biggest impact on his style, pushing him to keep improving his technique throughout his career. “My mentor showed me the work of [Joseph Christian] Leyendecker from the 1950s,” says Watatani. “I was stunned. His work went above and beyond; I decided to aim to that height.”
Watatani not only has the impressive drawing skills to achieve that goal but he is also committed to understanding (and embodying) the rarefied glamour of the lifestyle he portrays. “I have acquainted myself with things beyond clothes, from cocktails to cigars, art and culture,” he says. “It all reflects back on fashion.” That’s why Watatani makes a point of getting out of his studio to live the lives of his protagonists, perching at smoky bars as well as heading out to the countryside in the process.
This all-encompassing idea of what constitutes men’s fashion seems to have been vindicated in the past few years, with the industry increasingly leaning towards his outlook. “People want to present the lifestyle around fashion more than ever, instead of narrowly showing trends,” he says. Watatani’s illustrations might have a vintage air but his approach couldn’t be more current.
Sketched in ink, watercolour or whatever supplies she decides to pick up from the art shop, Cecilia Carlstedt’s illustrations form images that evoke elegance and movement with a few measured lines. “I was always interested in drawing the figure,” says Carlstedt from her narrow studio in central Stockholm, where walls are lined with pinned postcards and shelves are bursting with back issues of periodicals. “Fashion came later – in my teens, with the magazines. I’ve always been interested in the flat medium.” While still a teenager, she decided to head up to Swedish Elle, clutching a folder filled with her originals. A commission was soon awarded, and work for both magazines and brands has followed steadily since.
Despite a taste for trying out a range of different media, working on paper remains Carlstedt’s first and most burning love. “For me, it’s just a way of cropping the world, of framing things,” she says. “It’s about the immediacy, the simplicity of it. It’s so raw – great ideas and things can come through pen and paper.”
“It’s about the immediacy, the simplicity of it. It’s so raw – great ideas can come through pen and paper”
The major fashion brands that ask her to take care of their projects seem to agree. In the past year she has realised one-off paintings for a diamond brand, as well as a big advertising campaign for Italian shoe-maker Fratelli Rossetti. Other clients include French fashion house Chloé and cognac brand Courvoisier, all completed while juggling a number of editorial commissions for the likes of Harper’s Bazaar and Wonderland. “Illustration will never replace photography; it’s not its role,” she says. “It just adds a more personal view. It’s also really intriguing to see one art form describe another.”
Carlstedt adds that because of the digital environment that fashion increasingly operates in, there is a craving to see “handmade stuff”. “There is a sense of personality,” she says. “It’s more analogue, because it comes from the hand.” Still, that doesn’t mean that her drawings carry a vintage air: if anything her style has kept changing and evolving over time. “That’s what keeps it exciting; when you’re in the fashion industry, it’s all about progression,” she says.
Her very subject matter is what ensures that staying still is never an option. “Fashion is the meeting point of all design disciplines, so it’s an endless source of inspiration. You have the models, the make-up, the whole aspect of theatre surrounding it,” she says. “But it also plays with that element of storytelling; it’s something you can have fun with – it’s a dream scenario.”
When Jacky Marshall (aka Jacky Blue) shows monocle her sketchbook from when she was a womenswear designer, the similarities with her current work as an illustrator are striking. With their long legs, and jittery pencil marks, it’s hard to categorise them: are they painterly design sketches or design-led illustrations?
“I was always really artistic in my drawing,” says Marshall from the large, window-front desk inside her studio in New York. Having trained as a fashion designer in London, she moved to the US in time to catch the golden era of Calvin Klein – where she designed alongside Narciso Rodriguez – and began working for Donna Karan and dkny, which continued for many years. “I was able to design in a way that was almost like illustrating: I was extremely lucky to work in companies that had sample rooms and the most amazing pattern-makers. I wouldn’t have been able to translate them,” she says. “The organisations I worked in were extremely creative.”
That’s why, when dkny was sold to g-iii in 2016, she realised that her method would not function well in that new context – and started finding ways to stay true to her creative process. Soon after, her illustration work began to attract the attention of fashion magazines and brands, including Marc Jacobs, who commissioned her to work on his perfume packaging. “It’s not like I’m an illustrator [who happens to be] doing a fashion drawing,” she says. “I understand pattern, prints and colour: first and foremost, fashion is in my blood. So if somebody came to me and asked, ‘Can you design a cookery book sketch?’, it would still have a flair of fashion. It’s just inherent in anything I do.”
“It’s not like I’m an illustrator doing a fashion drawing. I understand pattern, prints and colour; first and foremost, fashion is in my blood”
This individual approach has caught the eye of brands such as Agnona as well as editorial platforms including Showstudio, which have commissioned her to portray some outfits in her signature colourful style. Looking at the array of riotous, kaleidoscopic images scattered around her studio wall and in her sketchbooks, it’s easy to understand Marshall when she talks about why companies still have a taste for representing their collections in media beyond photography. “There’s something very delightful about [illustration]; something aesthetically interesting,” she says. “People who look at my work often say to me, ‘You make us happy’.” It’s a similar feeling to that which entices people to follow the release of new collections from fashion brands season in, season out. “Why do people keep buying different clothes? Because it gives you a kind of joy.”
Images: Tetsuo Kashiwada, Brendan Austin, Levi Mandel